Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla: Biography of a Genius

ISBN: 0806519606
ISBN 13: 9780806519609
By: Marc Seifer William H. Terbo

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About this book

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), credited as the inspiration for radio, robots, and even radar, has been called the patron saint of modern electricity. Based on original material and previously unavailable documents, this acclaimed book is the definitive biography of the man considered by many to be the founding father of modern electrical technology. Among Tesla's creations were the channeling of alternating current, fluorescent and neon lighting, wireless telegraphy, and the giant turbines that harnessed the power of Niagara Falls.

Reader's Thoughts

Adam Ford

This is not a great biography. But the subject is so fascinating that it largely covers the significant flaws.First the flaws: The author is an unabashed fan of Tesla and clearly has an agenda to make sure that the reader recognizes Tesla above Edison and Marconi and the other giants of the age. For instance, he denigrates Edison as using the brute force of a massive volume of experiments to come to what works while Tesla would think it through and do the math and find what would work and then test it to confirm. The author celebrates Tesla as superior to Edison because of this difference--Edison is the plodding, dirty, workbench-chained technician--Tesla is the brilliant scientist with pencil and paper and thoughts soaring above. There might be some truth to this contrast, but it is made in an extreme sense and seems unnecessarily judgmental towards Edison. And so forth throughout the book. A second flaw is that the author is so insistent in trying to prove Tesla's scientific priority over those that follows that he spends hundreds of pages going through technical aspects of patent applications and the inner-working of the various devices. This might be interesting to an electrical engineer, but to the lay reader it is tedious. I just about laid the book down once or twice. But there were enough brilliant insights to keep going.A few interesting anecdotes: Once Tesla nearly destroyed his lab building on Houston St. in NYC with one of his oscillators. Shortly afterwards he clamped one to a skyscraper under construction and nearly caused it to collapse, turning it off and slipping it into his pocket and slipping away in the confusion of men thinking an earthquake had struck. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tesla... (the book does not calim the oscillator cause an earthquake, but that the effect of the oscillator connected to a building's support structure was like an earthquake an could tumble a buildng within minutes. Amazing if true (and it sounds true to this non-scientiest--resonence of marching on bridges and all that). Tesla was backed at different times by both John Jacob Astor (the richest man in the world) and JP Morgan (the most powerful financier in the world). He failed to deliver both times, taking the money which was earmarked for one purpose and diverting it to another purpose. When he ran out of money to complete the non-disclosed purpose and came back begging for more money, he was rebuffed. If he had done what he told the two men he was going to do with the money (in both cases creating a product that could be taken to market) instead of burning through it on scientific research without an end, he would have been a very very wealthy man and who knows what he could have accomplished. As it was, he never was able to raise money after betraying JPMorgan and was unable to do much significant work after that time. Tesla was constantly a deadbeat borrower, evicted from many hotels for unpaid bills, and constantly begging others for funding during the last half of his life. It is sad to read, really. Tesla was a lifelong celibate, almost certainly homosexual, but never practicing. A man of amazing self-discipline and focus. His consuming dream was to provide free electric powerful to the world. It is unlikely that there is merit to this scheme or it would have been implemented somewhere at some time (same with his death ray concept which he claimed to have build a prototype). It seems the longer he lived, the crazier he became. For instance, he was fanatically committed to pigeons--paying people to feed them when he didn't have enough money to pay his rent. He loved pigeons more than anything for his last few decades. One favorite visited him, he claimed, and communicated to him it was dying and Tesla saw light shooting out of its eyes, telling Tesla that his work was also done. Very odd. He also had to circle the block of his hotel six times before he would enter each night. He wouldn't shake hands due to germs. Typical obsessive-compulsive behavior stuff. Sad. Bottom line on the man: Tesla was brilliant and we owe him much for our modern world is built on his inventions--everything that runs on electricity is a grandchild of Tesla. Tesla invented: AC current, florescent light, X-Ray machines, radio broadcast (the US Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that Tesla's patents were violated by Marconi), remote control of boats/airplanes/etc, the electric motor, robotics (and the entire concept of a robot), the laser, wireless communication. That is quite a list. His name deserves to be immortal. Bottom line on the book: Tesla is still awaiting the biography he deserves. But this one is worth picking up while we wait.


When I review a biography, I usually start by saying "look how awesome this guy is" and then rambling about his appearance, his style, etc.Well, look how awesome this guy is. He's like a more dashing Marcel Proust. He's got a handsome but not showy mustachio. He's got that cool oiled hair thing going on.But Tesla's coolness is more about his showmanship. He took this terrifying, new thing called electricity, stuff that comes down from the sky and explodes trees and cows, and he just sits there reading a magazine while it rages around him. Or he'll walk out on a stage into the midst of bolts of electricity, walking through it like it's a waterfall instead of magical death light, protected only by the cork lining his shoes.And it's not just Tesla's wacky experiments that make him so compelling. It's his personality and his history of hardships. He's a tragic figure, the Melville of science, who ran into some fame and fortune, but was ultimately condemned to a life of struggle and a death alone in a hotel room.I won't force you to read this book. But you should at least read the Wikipedia article because this dude is really interesting.

Constantin Minov

Nicola Tesla was the discoverer of the AC polyphase system, the induction motor, fluorescent lights, mechanical and electrical oscillators, a novel steam propulsion system, wireless transmission of intelligence, light, and power, remote control, and interplanetary communication.He was a great electrical and mechanical engineer but despite this Tesla failed to make the right business decisions He first found employment with Thomas Edison by meeting him in New York.Edison was working on an direct current motor and he offered 50 thousands dollars to improve his primitive machine.Tesla worked eighteen hours a day finding ways to improve it but once he finished it Edison took the offer back stating that it was a joke.Edison was a businessman , the only thing he invented for real, is the electric chair, One thing Edison was better that Tesla is the market strategies which he employed workers and then neglecting the patents to be in their names.He once said that he had no need to be a mathematician because he could always hire one."Everybody steals in commerce and industry. I’ve stolen a lot myself. But I know how to steal -Thomas Edison, 1847-1931" George Westinghouse also hired Tesla for a short time as a consultant.They completely funded Tesla’s research and offered him a royalty agreement on future profits but in short time after patents were filed in his name, other scientists came across, taking credit for the invention, once again his name was lost in the shuffle. J. P. Morgan also made his best to ensure the inventor’s defeat, the monopolistic drive of Morgan "was greatly defined by controlling the price and distribution of energy and maintaining a working class to support the giant corporate monopolies"I'm quoting the author of "the 48 laws of power" Robert Greene who also mentioned about Tesla in his book: "The financiers had divested Tesla of the riches, the patents, and essentially the credit for the greatest invention of his career.The name of Guglielmo Marconi is forever linked with the invention of radio. But few know that in producing his invention—he broadcast a signal across the English Channel in 1899—Marconi made use of a patent Tesla had filed in 1897, and that his work depended on Tesla’s research. Once again Tesla received no money and no credit. Tesla invented an induction motor as well as the AC power system, and he is the real “father of radio.” Yet none of these discoveries bear his name. As an old man, he lived in poverty." Tesla argued that science had nothing to do with politics, and claimed not to care for fame and riches"This was a a quite different biography, the book illustrates how a monopoly market power can ruin an individual scientific work.Lesson to Teach:"First, the credit for an invention or creation is as important, if not more important, than the invention itself. You must secure the credit for yourself and keep others from stealing it away, or from piggy-backing on your hard work. To accomplish this you must always be vigilant and ruthless, keeping your creation quiet until you can be sure there are no vultures circling overhead. Second, learn to take advantage of other people’s work to further your own cause. Time is precious and life is short. If you try to do it all on your own, you run yourself ragged, waste energy, and burn yourself out. It is far better to conserve your forces, pounce on the work others have done, and find a way to make it your own.-- Robert Greene"

Dale Pearl

A mad genius. Quite possibly Tesla was a smarter man than Edison but he was quite mad, at least his behaviors and social skills would lead a person to think he was a mad hatter.

Tony Heyl

I hadn't read much about Tesla's life and inventions, so I thought this would be enlightening and a pleasure to read. As a person interested in science and technology, this seemed like a great choice. Instead, it was pretty boring. In some ways, Tesla comes across as the genius he is, being at the forefront of the electronic age and developing solutions and ideas for wireless communication, light, and electricity for all. On the other hand, his financial problems and his issues with getting credit for his own work could have been addressed if he just had an attorney helping him along the way. I became less sympathetic towards him as the story progressed as a result.The bigger problem for me in this book was the lack of context to the rest of the country and world. Good biographies weave a tapestry with the fabric of society at the time it was written or the context of the topic. See Robert Caro explaining the history of the Senate before writing about LBJ's time as Majority Leader or Nixonland as good examples. This is a timeline story of Tesla, with not enough to bring it back to really show the contrasts between this European immigrant and American inventers and his true place in history. Despite the work that Seifer clearly put into the book, it feels on the level of a high school thesis instead of a great biography.I wouldn't recommend this. It's not engaging enough, though the content is at times interesting.

Jessica Baumgartner

Nikola Tesla had abilities beyond that of many people, and though this book tried to present his life from all perspectives it is full of so much information pumped into so many different paragraphs that it becomes tedious. I had to take many breaks before deciding that this book is just a dry, hard read. I can usually push myself through a good book but how can one tell the story of a legend like Tesla in just one book? I'd much rather read the papers that he himself published and form my own idea of the man behind the myth.

Jim Lyke

It had been many years since I read Margaret Cheney's book about Tesla, and I was still an undergraduate (in engineering). As many have commented, Tesla was amazingly under-appreciated in our society (one reviewer asked why we were taught about Edison but not Tesla). This book, despite its seeming subjectivenss towards Tesla, did a very good job in painting his darker side, his hyperbolicity about his later proposed inventions (especially wireless power generation and death rays), his hubris in lifestyle, and arrogance in mis-purposing the investments he received from JP Morgan to pursue far more aggressive aims, blissfully ignoring the more modest and potentially more achievable instructions. Had he simply done (or tried to do) what JP asked, it is likely he would either have succeeded (and gained much more deserved celebrity) or at least might have garnered more backing. Instead, he squandered most of these investments, and in an almost self-destructive bend, did much to undermine much of what he should be well-remembered for (the invention of the polyphase AC system we have used and taken for granted for over 100 years). I felt less sympathetic after this expose of over-pleading, over-selling, and casual indifference to his own financial matters.Being an electrical engineer, I didn't find this book "too technical", and in fact for my taste, it could have been more expository on the principles behind some of his inventions. But I guess that would have lost even more of the readers, based on the other reviews posted here.Unlike many of the other reviews, I didn't find this book too long or too prone to descend into minutae. I mean, read almost any of Manchester's books (such as one of his Churchill biographies), and you will see how other authors spend a lot of words/pages detailing not just the author but the millieu of the times. While that practice can be annoying, I didn't feel relative to other biographers, that Seifer over-stepped in this regard. I actually did appreciate more development of his Serbian background and connections.There were things I thought bizarre, however, about the book and these are probably annoying to more technical readers. For example, it seems that the author is trying to credit Tesla with the invention of the laser, apparently suggesting that Tesla, if not by intention, then by accident at least, have reproduced the resonant cavity effect necessary to produce laser amplification (I believe Seifer said that Tesla might have accidentally nicked a mirror in one apparatus to approximate the imperfect polishing needed to produce laser action). This seems ridiculous to me, and I have never seen any other analysis or evidence of this achievement. Tesla maintained any number of crackpot concepts, such as being able to produce energies that exceed the speed of light. Seifer, in trying to connect concepts such as tachyons to Tesla claims, appears to be straining credibility, as he clearly doesn't understand the concepts himself ("oh, someone said Tachyons are faster than light, so somehow that must be what Tesla was talking about"). These sorts of over-reaching implications/assertions led me to downgrade the book. Others had made comments about Seifers tendency to conjecture about personal interactions and meetings, though that didn't really bother me, as I felt these were made clear by context as not being source-able as actual occurrences. The final annoyance was an over-reaching attempt to connect-the-dots relative to "secret government" plots to take Tesla's ideas. As in many conspiracy theories (think Roswell aliens), it is very hard to prove something didn't happen, and after nearly a century you'd expect that any insights or concepts would have been thoroughly plowed through (I worked at Wright-Patt in the mid-1980's and discussed Tesla with the base history office, saw the "not you, too" eye-rolling when I asked where the secret plans were).I look forward to reading the new Carlson (even LONGER as a warning to the other reviewers who though Seifer's book was too long) biography on Tesla, in the hopes (as other reviewers commented) that Tesla will finally get the biography he deserves. Seifer's book, while on balance better than the other biographies I am aware of, was probably still diminished by some obvious built-in biases and the need to connect-the-dots with improbable links to lasers and tachyons.

Jason Bergman

A fascinating look at the life of a strange and brilliant man. This is very much a warts and all approach to his life, which is a good thing, in my opinion. Tesla may have been a genius, but he was not a very practical man, and he had a deep self-destructive streak to him. There's a lot of great stuff in here, not the least of which is the appendix which examines whether or not Tesla's Wardenclyffe tower, which pretty much destroyed him financially (and mentally) could have ever been successful (probably not). Seifer's text can be a little dry, but then it also swings to unusual moments of overdramatic prose. It's a little strange. I chalk that up to Seifer recycling bits from his doctoral thesis (just a guess). In any event, it's good enough, and Tesla's life was full of enough drama that even the dry bits are pretty interesting. Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla is an excellent book. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the life of one of the greatest scientific minds the world has ever known.


No review of mine would be complete without a little backstory, so I shall share it now. I've been acquainted with the genius of Nikola Tesla for a long, long time. Ever since I've come to the realization that we owe that man a lot, I've striven to inform myself about the man and his work. I watched documentaries, attended lectures, read publications; I was terribly angry when the recreated Tesla laboratory in the Technical museum wasn't open when I found a time slot to visit it... heh, the only sin I'm guilty of is not visiting his house in Smiljan. I've even watched Prestige just to see how David Bowie had tapped into Tesla's role, for crying out loud.That all being said, I have to admit that I've expected The Wizard to be a book suitable for revision of facts I already knew about Tesla. I thought that it should be good as an introduction to Tesla's life and work, but I was a bit skeptical on what new could such a book offer to me. You can't imagine my delight when I started reading - after the chapters on Tesla's origins and childhood, which presented me with little new facts, I embarked on a very different journey. I can only imagine the time and effort it took the author to collect so many sources, and write such a unique and complete biography. Every passage, sentence or letter has a reference, so that readers can be directed to other sources, either for checking or simply finding new literature. What I also loved was the inclusion of multiple tellings of some situations in Tesla's life (for example, the two contradictory stories that depict Tesla's drive for money, or lack thereof, in his dealings with Edison).Seifer pictures Tesla's life in such minute detail, that even a person with a ready-made skeleton can make tweaks on the skeleton and start to construct tendons and joints, and completely flesh the structure out. The sheer wealth of information left me very impressed, and I was a skeptic no more. Instead, I learned so many things I didn't know prior, concerning Tesla's life and struggle. Because, let's face it, people - it was a battle with many admirable adversaries. From Edison, the people with whom Tesla had founded his first company, svindlers galore (yes, Michael Pupin and all that mendacious crowd that had preferred to simply not mention Tesla), money investors and bankers (yes, I'm talking about J.P. Morgan and the gang which squashed Tesla's dream of free energy), plagiators (yes, that is pointed towards Marconi), fires in his laboratories, to the general public (during the battle of currents and also later on in life), Tesla had had to fight his way to the top. And even though he had had his share of triumphs (1891/92. and the European tour, the fame which came in 1893/94., etc.), external factors and his own ideas seemed to work against him (after all, the ideas he had later on in life were the culprits of his pendulous fall...). Not to mention that he was in a not so grateful position of an expatriate in a new country (which he clearly felt, at least in the beginning, for he had written upon the demise of his Hungarian friend Szegeti, “I feel alienated, and it is difficult [for me to adapt to the American lifestyle].”). But in spite all that, he achieved great things of unsurpassed practical value. It would take me a whole book to list his discoveries, but let's mention the rotating magnetic field, polyphase electric system, lasers, fluorescent lights, wireless transmission and radio among the myriad other things we use in everyday life. But ultimately, Tesla's life story doesn't end up on a very optimistic note. Because, it all boils down to a man who had lots of great ideas which could have brought even more prosperity to mankind, but was barred from achieving the bulk of them by people who didn't have such altruistic interests as he had. All in all, I really liked this book. After all, it can't possibly be dull when it has such a fascinating topic! However, it wasn't flawless. The chronological structure, while logical, was perhaps one of the weaknesses of the book. I can tell that Seifer's goal was to present Tesla's life in an orderly way, but as a result of that, some chapters felt jumbled as we got to read about the different aspects of Tesla's life, consecutively. (Don't get me wrong, one of The Wizard's strengths is that it also discusses Tesla's social life, and gives proof in the form of various letters, directed either to or from Tesla, but that was tightly enmeshed in the tales of Tesla's discoveries, which made it a bit difficult for my mind to switch from topic to topic.) Another minor quibble - after the chapter Loose ends and Tesla's death, the author talks about some historical issues which perhaps were not necessary. But aside from that, the book is great and I highly recommend it.

Steven Peterson

Nikola Tesla was without a doubt a genius when it came to electricity and engineering. Have you ever been in wonder at the electric power produced by Niagara Falls? Well, this was a product of Tesla's insights and work.The book traces nicely the trajectory of Tesla's career. We learn of his youth and his formative influences. He moved to the United States and began his work inventing devices. Early on, he came up with an electrical system--A.C.--as opposed to Thomas Edison's D.C. The two ended up--at best--as frenemies, and often sniped with one another. The same with Guglielmo Marconi.When one considers Tesla's discoveries, it is clear that he was a major figure in his field. He gained the support of major figures, such as George Westinghouse. But, with time, he began to deliver less and less, as some of his eccentricities took center stage. At one point, he thought he was receiving signals from Mars. His eccentricity did not work in his favor.And he liked to live well. But he met with reverses. He created Wardenclyffe, an enormous effort to develop wireless communication that could cover stupefying distances. Because of his poor business model, all was lost.The book well covers his genius--and his shortcomings and stubbornness.Want to learn more about a genuine genius? Take a look at this work. It is not always the most elegantly written, but the work is still quite readable. Documentation is solid.

Michael Bartolone

Finally finished this book off, after three months of stops and starts.The fact that it took me so long to finish is an indication in itself of how I felt about this book at times. It was extremely dense, with many difficult to follow technical explanations. The recitation of Tesla's life events also read at times like an encyclopedia entry, jumping around without any logical or narrative flow other than chronology - "on April 1, 1892, he did this, on September 15, 1892, he did that," etc. However, the way Tesla's life intersected with other luminaries of the era - Mark Twain, Stanford White, J. P. Morgan, among others - was fascinating, and Seifer did a great job of interrelating them. I particularly enjoyed the passages that examined Tesla's motivations, personality quirks, and ideas about how he viewed the world and arrived at his discoveries. Most of these were examined through painstaking research of Tesla's personal correspondence.One of the most rewarding things about this book was that it gave a much more even-handed view of Tesla's life than that of the modern-day cult hero perpetuated by Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal, among others. Tesla detested Marconi for example, and while he probably had good reason, he was far from magnanimous in letting Marconi use his patents. Tesla was also petulant and lived far beyond his means, which contributed significantly to his downfall and lack of stability in later life. The story of Edison sabotaging Tesla at every turn is also overblown. Tesla was a visionary however, and it's amazing to contemplate how his ideas affect our everyday lives. It's too bad this book was written in 1997, before the explosion of the Internet and modern devices like smart phones. It would have been really interesting to see how Seifer applied Tesla's work to those concepts. And it is absolutely true that Tesla was held back and taunted by powerful forces that had a lot to lose from his ideas, most notably J. Pierpont Morgan.Overall, a very dense, and at times dull, but amazing historical read.

Peter McGarvey

Since Tesla was such a fascinating personality I was expecting this biography to be a bit more dynamic. That said, Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla is still a great read albeit a bit dry.There is room however, for a definitive biography of one of the great characters in the drama that was the 20th century.

Fred Hughes

That Tesla was a genius is a given.This book goes deeper than that and at times he does appear to be a wizard. Highly educated, fluent in 12 languages, and a prolific reader Tesla even when young would not just accept something as fact just because some authority figure told him. If it didn’t make sense he would investigate it with vigour.That was both a positive and negative attribute as once he got something in his mind to work on he would do so without appropriate rest until he collapsed. He was driven in the true sense of the word.Seifer’s research for this book must have been intensive as it comprehensive in what is included.Great mind, Great Book

Tom Haynes

So glad to have read about this man. He is an unsung hero of technology. Edison, Marconi, A G Bell we know about from elementary history. Tesla's name deserves his mention in history along with the aforementioned men.The world of patents, patent infringement, corporate manipulations, JP Morgan, NYC 1890-1930, pigeons, Warden Cliff, NY, WW l, WWll, death ray, Chicago world's fair, Tesla coils and motors, 100k volts passing through the body, are just a few of the ingredients of author Marc Seifer's excellent travels into the life of Nikola Tesla. Important history we never quite knew.


This book is actually the reason I can't check out anything at the SF Public Library anymore. I took it out years ago, and by the time I started it, it was due back again. But being the lazy bastard I am, I just kept reading it because it was so engrossing, and never renewed it. Tesla was, next to Da Vinci, probably the purest and most intuitive scientific genius ever to have lived. He was also one of the most paranoid and eccentric, but really everyone knows that is a prerequisite for genius. Seeing how badly Edison screwed him over, and the personal hatred Edison had for him, was shocking, not to mention the experiments Tesla did in Colorado with 'free energy', make it worthwhile. Oh, and he designed and tested all his machines in his head, so they worked perfectly the first time he built them almost always.

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